Last year as a Knick, Carmelo Anthony surpassed the 24,000 point mark becoming just the 25th NBA player to reach that milestone. He is a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the great scorers in NBA history. The accomplishment though, got me thinking about his tenure as a New York Knick. In his first three seasons in New York he led the Knicks to three brief playoff berths (one series win). After this modicum of success though, four straight seasons of missing the playoffs, one more disappointing than the next ensued. Last year specifically he had some decent talent around him. A burgeoning if at times enigmatic star in Kristaps Porzingis, a one dimensional, still athletic but flawed former MVP in Derrick Rose, and a mix of seemingly decent role players in Courtney Lee, Willy Hernangomez, and others. Nobody other than Rose himself would describe this as title contending talent, but to not even compete for the 8th seed in a perennially weak Eastern Conference? And its not like Melo, at age 33 couldnt play anymore. He was right at or around his career averages in just about all major statistical categories. But this is not to say I’m not a Carmelo Anthony fan. His deficiencies and weaknesses are well documented and often accurate, but again, he is still a first ballot Hall of Famer, like it or not. In fact, as puzzled as I was by another disastrous Knicks season, this milestone had me thinking less about Carmelo and more about a previous Knicks great, Patrick Ewing.
After coming into the league in 1985-86 and playing for bad teams in his first two seasons, he went on an incredible run of success. From 1987-88 through 2000-01 (his age 38 season) he made the playoffs 14 consecutive seasons, winning 17 playoff rounds, and reaching two NBA Finals. For a player to be the clear star of a team for that long with that consistency of success (despite not winning the ultimate prize) one or both of the following things would need to be true for him not to be considered an immortal player: His playoff runs must have been ended by poor teams, teams that his greatness alone should’ve been able to overcome, and/or he played with other great players, leaving him without excuse for playoff series losses, no matter his opponents. Lets delve into these questions a bit deeper.
The following is a list of the teams that ousted the Knicks from the playoffs during Ewing’s 14 year stretch:
1987-88 – The Larry Bird, McHale, Parish Celtics.
1988-89 – The young but still Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen led Bulls
1989-90 – The Champion Bad Boy Pistons
1990-91 – Jordan and the Champion Bulls
1991-92 – Jordan and the Champion Bulls
1992-93 – Jordan and the Champion Bulls
1993-94 – Lost in Game 7 in the NBA Finals to the Rockets
1994-95 – Finger roll loss to the Pacers
1995-96 – Jordan and the Champion Bulls
1996-97 – Heat (more below)
1997-98 – Pacers
1998-99 – Lost (an old, breaking down Ewing was injured) in the Finals
to the Spurs.
1999-00 – Finals bound Pacers
2000-01 – Raptors
To review, they lost to the dynastic Jordan led Bulls fives times, four of which were during Bulls championship years. Nobody beat Jordan. That is well established. Ewing just joins a list of all time greats (Barkley, Malone, Stockton, Payton, and everyone else in the 90’s). In the year that Jordan decided to give baseball a try, the Knicks won the East and held a 3-2 lead in the Finals only to fall just short to Olajuwon and the Rockets in 7. In 96-97, the Knicks got some reinforcements and were a 57 win team gelling at just the right time. They swept their opening round series against the Hornets and were up 3-1 to a 61 win Heat team before PJ Brown body slammed Charlie Ward, most of the team including Ewing got suspended, and they lost in 7. The Bulls were up next. By the late 90’s, Ewing was no longer the best player on the team as he hit his late 30s but he still helped them to a second Finals appearance in 1998-99 but could not play in the Finals against the Tim Duncan/David Robinson led Spurs. In all, I don’t think the argument could be made that the Knicks lost to bad competition during Ewing’s playoff run. Maybe the one series where they underachieved was in 1994-95 where Game 7 against the Pacers ended on the infamous missed Ewing finger roll. It is worth noting though, that the Knicks were down 3-1 in that series and won Game 5 on a Ewing buzzer beater on the brink of elimination and then won game 6 handily in Indiana before losing the aforementioned Game 7.
Ok, so what about the talent surrounding Ewing during his illustrious but ultimately unfulfilling career? Lets have a closer look. To have that run of consistency and success, this guy must’ve been surrounded by stars and HOFers. The following are the awards/recognitions handed out to Ewing’s teammates from 1987-2001:
1987-88 Rookie of the Year – Mark Jackson.
1988-89 All Star – Mark Jackson
1993-94 All Star – John Starks
1993-94 All Star – Charles Oakley
1994-95 Sixth Man of the Year – Anthony Mason
1996-97 Sixth Man of the Year – John Starks
1999-00 All Star – Allan Houston
2000-01 All Star – Allan Houston
2000-01 All Star – Latrell Sprewell
In 14 playoff seasons Ewing played with 6 All Stars and 2 top bench players. Thats it! In 88-89 Mark Jackson was a second year player and the Knicks were not contenders. In 99-00, and 00-01, Sprewell and Houston were the stars of the team and Ewing was a third banana at the end of his career. The only other year with an All Star teammate was 93-94, the year they came within a John Starks 3-pointer from winning it all. During this era, Jordan had Pippen for all six of his titles (and of course he’s Jordan). Karl Malone (the second all time leading scorer in NBA history) and John Stockton (the NBA’s all time leader in assists and steals) played together every year of the run. Barkley played with Dr. J, Moses Malone, Hersey Hawkins, Kevin Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler and more over his career and
never won a championship. David Robinson didn’t win until his twilight years when he got Tim Duncan. Shaq didn’t win until he got Kobe Bryant. Both top 15 all time players. Who was Ewing’s best teammate when he was at the top of his game from 85-97? John Starks? Charles Oakley? He never played with a first, second or third team all NBA player and won 17 playoff rounds. Frankly its remarkable. And when I think about this and compare it to the Carmelo Anthony led Knicks that failed to sniff 8th seed in a weakened East for four years, its hard to even comprehend how this warrior and consummate performer and winner was so under-appreciated. If Carmelo Anthony is a Hall of Famer, what does that make Patrick Ewing?